Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hamilton: Bank On Relegation

Hamilton are relegated. Just as surely as Fred Goodwin is a banker* the Accies have reached the end of the SPL road.

Well, they haven't quite. But it seems to be getting closer and closer.

Billy Reid's side now languish at the foot of the table, seven points adrift of St Mirren who have a game in hand.

And it's St Mirren they must concentrate on catching if they are to escape their fate.

St Johnstone, Aberdeen, Hibs and one of Inverness and Motherwell are going to be too far ahead of bottom place by the time of the split to be dragged back into the mire.

Hamilton's next four games are against St Johnstone, St Mirren, Rangers and Hibs.

At least two of them would appear to be must win matches if they are to claw themselves to some kind of parity with St Mirren before the last five games of the season.

St Mirren, whose next five league games include Hearts, Aberdeen and Celtic, look to have the more difficult pre-split run in. But I would be fairly confident that Danny Lennon will just need to avoid defeat in the game against Hamilton to maintain a comfortable distance between the sides.

In recent games reporters and pundits have been falling over themselves to patronise Hamilton for their performances and insist that their "luck must change."

Which is, frankly, bollocks.

When you're the condemned team there is no guarantee that your luck must change. None at all.

When you're the condemned team being denied a possible penalty shout at 1-1 against United is what happens.

When you're the condemned team playing well against Hibs only to lose goals when you've been attacking is what happens.

It's shit. But that is the luck you get.

But it's not just bad luck that sees Hamilton where they are.

Last night in Dundee they welcomed back Alex Neil. Club captain, big presence and important part of the successful years Hamilton have had.

With the greatest of respect though, Hamilton need a lot of things right now. And, as big an influence as Alex Neil exerts, he's not going to be able to save them.

At the moment I'm reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis. And it's fascinating about the use of sabermetrics in baseball.

But Hamilton don't need Wall Street traders or Harvard economists to tell them why they're failing.

They're deep in the doodah because they don't score goals. And when they do they can't convert them into wins.

In 14 home games this season Hamilton have scored only nine goals and won no games.

In 15 away games they've managed eight goals and two wins.

That's relegation stuff.

It's true that, because proven goalscorers cost money, Hamilton are not the only SPL side to struggle.

St Johnstone have scored only 18, just one more than Hamilton, this season. But they've managed to clinch five home wins and three away wins with a goal difference of -16 compared to Hamilton's -33.

So St Johnstone with only one goal more are six wins, 17 goals and 17 points better off.

St Mirren have scored five more goals than Hamilton but won three more games and seven more points with a goal difference of -23.

With what appear to be not disimilar attacking resources, the two Saints are making more of an impact in the SPL.

In fact, throughout Scotland, only Ross County, eighth in the First Division, have scored as few goals as Hamilton this season.

If you're not going to score goals at least shut up shop at the back. But Hamilton have struggled with that as well. The Accies have shipped 50 goals this season, three more than even Aberdeen whose statistics are skewed by a 9-0 humping at Celtic.

In the Scottish leagues only Stirling Albion, bottom of the first, have a goal difference as bad.

If you can't score and you struggle to defend then suddenly a 1-0 loss or 2-1 loss becomes an OK result, an improvement. 0-0 or 1-1 becomes a stunning result. That's not enough for Hamilton right now.

So Hamilton are destined to go down because they are crap?

Possibly. But crap teams have survived before. And at one stage this season it looked like Hibs were so poor that Hamilton might have been able to watch the Leith side hurtle past them into the First Division.

There are also mitigating circumstances. Since Hamilton won promotion they've lost James McCarthy and James McCarthur to England. Neil has missed most of this season through injury.

And the money has simply not been there to provide even adequate replacements.

Nor has there been money to find a goalscorer. Mickael Antoine-Curier and Flavio Paixao lead the Hamilton scoring charts. They've got three league goals each.

A lack of goals scored and too many goals conceded are the traits of Hamilton's season.

The hard luck stories and the pundits plaudits are perhaps less a symbol of their continued fight as a confirmation of their reality.

The players are responding, are finding the spirit to battle on. And it's still not good enough.

Some fans are blaming the manager, others give him the benefit of the doubt because of what he's achieved in other seasons.

The media and pundits will probably lean towards the latter verdict because Billy Reid is a good bloke and they don't care that much about Hamilton anyway.

To constantly upset the odds on a tight budget is a hard job though. Perhaps Reid has just run out of ideas or luck. Either way the situation is now so bleak that there is little he can do except try to keep the players plugging away and hope, like the fans, that something, anything, changes.

I hate to see any team going down. Been there, done that, still feel the scars.

But someone (most seasons) has to. And this season that looks very like being Hamilton.

* Sir Fred Goodwin, the former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive, has taken out an injunction banning the media from calling him a banker, an MP has claimed. (The Mirror)

Doesn't say anything about rhyming slang though...

Scottish Cup: A Biblical Epic

An itsy bitsy weekend for the top flight clubs with the Scottish Cup quarter finals spread out over Saturday and Sunday and Rangers and Kilmarnock squeezing in a league clash tomorrow.

But a day with an almost biblical narrative: Saints, David and Goliath, a prodigal son and no doubt some sinners by 5pm this evening.

St Mirren v Aberdeen

Both clubs have survived scares to get this far. St Mirren quite comfortably negotiated a way past Ayr United in the last round but needed a replay to hit Peterhead for six back in January.

Aberdeen got half a dozen against East Fife to set up a huff and puff performance against Dunfermline settled only by a 92nd minute own goal.

Mindful of that game at Pittodrie the neutral might be less than enthralled at the prospect of the BBC cameras tracking Craig Brown's every move.

Still, it could be a belter.

In the league this season the two sides have met twice and have a win each. Aberdeen did the business in a 2-0 home in January while St Mirren prevailed 2-1 in October.

Following that defeat in Paisley, Mark McGhee's Aberdeen travelled to Celtic the following week and lost 9-0.

All seems a long time ago now.

Aberdeen will be favourites here. They were poor on Monday in losing to Dundee United but, with both top six dreams and relegations nightmares out of the way, the cup offers interest in a season that's dwindling away.

St Mirren, trapped between the safety of teams like Aberdeen and the anguish of Hamilton, still have other battles to fight.

An away win for me.

Brechin City v St Johnstone

Brechin, I often quite cruelly feel, is the sort of place one drives through en route to somewhere else you don't really want to be.

Not today though as the cathedral city bedecks itself in red and white to celebrate a Scottish Cup quarter final.

Second in Division Two, Brechin are a side whose 105 year history (following the merger of Brechin Hearts and Brechin Harps, wiki fans) has been marked by a stolid underachievement.

I don't mean that to be as disrespectful as it sounds. They are every inch the lower league side, the sort of side that helps make Scottish football what it is.

So a quarter final is a rare achievement and we should be thanking Brechin for allowing us to rediscover some of the romance of the cup in the dully predictable Scottish game.

And an added layer of intrigue offered by Brechin manager Jim Weir who spent 13 years of his playing career at St Johnstone.

Romance, David v Goliath stuff, divided loyalties. The BBC commentators might be slightly annoyed that the powers that be chose Paisley over Brechin this afternoon.

Brechin's lofty league position seems based on goals (43 in 24 games) and a solid defence. Much is also being made of their fitness which could dent one of St Johnstone's most obvious advantages.

I'm a giant feartie-cat who loves stories like this.

Brechin in a semi final, just a couple of years of being kicked out of this very competition.

Brechin in a semi final just a year or so after David Will, Mr Brechin and FIFA administrator, died.

It would all bring a tear to glass eye.

But they have to beat St Johnstone to get there. I'll back the magic to continue - if only for a bit - with a scoring draw today.

Friday, March 11, 2011

John White: Memories of The Ghost Live On

I'm looking forward to reading the new biography of John White, The Ghost of White Hart Lane, written by his son Rob White and Julie Welch.

White, of course, formed part of a tartan trinity with Bill Brown and Dave Mackay that helped drive Spurs to the Double in 1961 and the Cup Winner's Cup two years later.

Plucked from Falkirk in 1959 (Brown joined Spurs from Dundee, Mackay from Hearts), White was to be the fulcrum of Bill Nicholson's revamped Spurs in the mid sixties when tragedy struck.

Killed by lightning while golfing at the age of 27, White's career was cut tragically short.

A 2008 Scotland on Sunday article reported:

[Dave] Mackay asked the other day why we were writing about White now but then quickly answered his own question. "Ah, son, you don't need a reason." How good was he, we asked Jimmy Greaves. "Had John lived," said Greaves, "he could have been one of the greatest footballers of all time." How did the fans take to him? "I've been going to the Lane since 1952," says Peter Barnes, a diehard Spur. "Before me, my dad went from 1926. We cover a lot of history between us and John White was at the top table of greats of this club."

He was discovered the old fashioned way as well. Musselburgh born, White's career took him from East Lothian youth football to Bonnyrigg Rose in the juniors to Alloa and Falkirk in the professional leagues.

Spurs persevered where other big English clubs had given up, put off by his slight stature. The wily Nicholson apparently used his army contacts to discover that White's time in the services included a stint as a cross country running champion. Assured of his stamina, Nicholson signed his man.

Holding his own with players like Greaves in the Spurs side and linking up with Denis Law and Jim Baxter in his 22 Scotland games, White was clearly a rare talent.

"Will o' the wisp" is a phrase you often hear in people's recollections of him, the "Ghost" nickname coming from his ability to arrive in the box as if from nowhere.

In a week when Spurs are enraptured by a multi-million pound squad assembled from around the world, it's strange to think that Mackay and White, from Edinburgh and Musselburgh, were the heartbeat of a side that won British football's first European trophy.

That the book is co-authored by White's son delivers an added poignancy. Rob White was barely six months old when his father was killed.

It should at least be another step to ensure that the memory of Spurs' Ghost lives on.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scottish Football Tonight: Home and Away

Europa League: PSV Eindhoven v Rangers

A confident Rangers flew out to the Netherlands yesterday promising to attack, attack, attack against Eindhoven this evening.


They didn't.

Stressing the size of the challenge, the injuries in the squad and even one or two off field concerns, Walter Smith emphasised Rangers' underdog status against the Dutch league leaders.

So we can expect the parking of Brian Souter's entire fleet as Rangers revert to the hardy old European model.

Or, as they're in the Benelux region, perhaps they'll just build a dike along the 18 yard line.

That would, at least, give Davie Weir something to lean on.

Weir has actually said he might not retire at the end of the season. If he is to stay at Ibrox then Rangers will be erecting their famous defensive wall about one yard from the goal line by this stage next year.

Look, we know what to expect from Rangers in this one.

PSV would appear to be a sterner challenge than Sporting were in the last round. But Rangers are adept at this kind of game. So it's up to the hosts to hurdle the tactical obstacles Walter Smith puts in their way.

PSV have been scoring a lot of goals recently so in all likelihood this is going to be another in Rangers' series of siege like European nights.

Funnily enough, PSV have never beaten a Scottish side in European competiton, losing to both Rangers and Dundee United.

But got to back PSV to win this one. But I'm not sure they'll kill off the tie tonight, leaving Rangers down but not out.

Dundee United v Hamilton

Buoyed by their recent run of form and confident in their goalscoring ability, Hamilton will be looking forward launching themselves at this game.


They probably won't.

Billy Reid's men are winning some plaudits for their approach and their performances in a few recent games.

But they remain as blunt as an antique butter knife and combine their impotence with an unfortunate habit of conceding important goals.

It's a mix that explains their current plight. Bottom of the league and looking doomed.

These two drew the last time they met. But United started off their run of home games with a win against Aberdeen on Monday.

They should get another tonight. Home win.

Queen of the South: Dumfries Despair

Another day, another dollar.

Or, more accurately, another story about the lack of dollars in the Scottish game.

Queen of the South's financial plight, already an open secret, has been confirmed in the club's latest accounts.

A loss of £1.2 million - up from £750,000 the previous year - is compounded by a drop in net assets from £500,000 to £82,000.

Even I, proudly possessing the financial acumen of an innumerate spendthrift, can tell that this situation is grim.

Dumfries' finest are not alone, too many clubs seem to be in a perpetual state of impecunious meltdown.

But £1.2 million?

Seems a hell of a lot of money.

The directors say they've got plans to return to profitability but also concede that the accounts point to:

"material uncertainty which casts significant doubt upon the company's ability to continue as a going concern." (BBC)

As Dumfries' most famous former resident wrote "prudent, cautious, self-control
is wisdom's root."

But it's not as if Palmerston Park has seen the unsustainable arrival of expensive signings of late.

This is a solid club with a long history and a stable position in the first division alongside that 2008 Scottish Cup final appearance and a flirtation with Europe the following season.

But still it's hard to see where a sound plan for a speedy return to health can come from.

The desperation of their plight might make clubs like Queen of the South more amenable to talk of league mergers and SPL reconstruction.

Let's hope, then, that the SPL have more than dreams to back up their assurance of future happiness for all.

> Find out more about what the fans are doing to help at the Queens Trust

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Old Firm: Summit's Up

This is the blog post I wasn't going to write.

The media and the internet has been convulsed by Old Firm hysteria to the point that it's been turning me off Scottish football.

Certainly it's been turning me off blogging about Scottish football, a game entirely distorted by the power of the big two.

But here I am writing it anyway.

Writing it as a neutral. A neutral who didn't enjoy the scenes at Celtic Park and has been ever more dismayed by the fallout from that game.

Writing, also, about the Old Firm as a single entity. I know that annoys people.

But it is how they are viewed from the outside, it's how they are marketed by the SPL and it is how they draw much of their immense power in the Scottish game.

That is not to say that I apportion blame for recent events equally.

Just that the clubs should work together to acknowledge certain problems and to help find solutions. Problems which, most certainly, can't be blamed entirely on the clubs themselves.

It wisnae me

And so the Old Firm summit hastily convened by Alex Salmond resulted in that woolly outcome of many a hastily convened summit, a point by point plan:

  • The creation of a stand-alone pan-Scotland police football intelligence unit as part of the ongoing review of police forces in Scotland
  • Greater enforcement of existing legislation to deal with sectarianism and drink related offences
  • The establishment of a task force comprising senior police officers, government representatives and club security personnel to deliver more consistency in policing of football matches across Scotland
  • A detailed academic study into the extent of the linkage of football to violent crime committed domestically and in the community
  • Celtic and Rangers will commit to playing an enhanced role in a partnership approach to encourage responsible drinking
  • A re-enforced code of conduct for players and officials

Accepting their summit summons, all involved turned up and signed up.

Not, perhaps, without reservations.

The SPL's Neil Doncaster couldn't have appeared more akward at the merest hint that the authorities could impose a blanket ban on weekend SPL games. The face of a man being told he could keep his goose but that the golden eggs would be confiscated.

Peter Lawell of Celtic and Martin Bain of Rangers acquiesced but couldn't quite shake the impression of schoolboys summoned to the headmaster's office while remaining adamant that it "wisnae me."

And they do have a point.

The Old Firm game last Wednesday night was hardly the start of the issues discussed yesterday.

And nor is football in general, the Old Firm in particular, to blame for many of the ills that still curse modern Scotland.

Issues that surround this game, and the wider sport, are caused by all manner of problems that blight Scotland and often seem most focused in the west.

And yet.

I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the game that their dominance brings Celtic and Rangers both privileges and responsibilities.

In a season that has seen the refereeing farrago, in a week that saw the Scottish Police Federation's Les Gray make quite a widespread attack on the issues that surround game, there was a responsibility for last Wednesday's game to be conducted better than it was.

Just because the clubs are not to blame for society's ills does not mean they can stand clear of accusations that they let that scarred and often broken society down with their conduct.

It does not mean they can quite happily do whatever they want in a vacuum, removed from real life.

They are part of society, they have a responsibility to society.

I've been interested in Scottish football all my life. I have friends who support both sides of the Old Firm.

But still I've been wearied this week by the internet reaction in the aftermath of the game.

Each new accusation against this player or that official or those fans has been met with glee by fans of the other team.

"We're better than you." "No, we're not as bad as you."

It's been apparently without end and it's been incredibly tiring.

For my part, I feel it's possible to say that Rangers have a more serious problem with sectarianism than Celtic without ignoring issues that Celtic still have in their own support.

I feel it's possible to argue that Neil Lennon's behaviour has been questionable at times this season while still feeling absolute disgust at the threats he has been subjected to, the internet lunatics who abuse him.

I feel it's still possible to follow events in the Scottish media without seeing bias in every comma, prejudice in every full stop.

I feel it's possible to have watched last Wednesday's night's game and been depressed by the spectacle without feeling emasculated or the need "to grow a pair."

I feel it's possible to acknowledge that Old Firm games like that increase interest in the Scottish game while arguing that "the football's shite, but there might be a rammy" is not a sustainable marketing campaign for the SPL.

I feel it's possible to support a football team without embroiling yourself in a battle of good versus evil and engaging in cyber-McCarthyism to prove your point.

Because the summit yesterday was dealing with more nuanced issues than this constant, self perpetuating cycle of mud slinging allows.

Lawwell and Bain have to rise above that. They are right that there are burdens of responsibility that every member of Scottish society must share.

But Celtic and Rangers can still be a part of the solution, a powerful part. I got the impression yesterday that for all they signed up to the plan they were still too keen, like those supporters with their accusations and counter-accusations, to shift blame.

"It wisnae me. And anyway they started it."

Aye, society is to blame. But that same society gives Rangers and Celtic massive power.

They could use it better.

Salmond's Summit

I am, incidentally, no great fan of Alex Salmond. In fact his undoubtedly deserved pre-eminence among Scotland's politicians is often depressing to me.

But yesterday his hand was somewhat forced by the police asking for him to intervene. Had he done nothing he would have been accused over his lack of activity. The minute he called the summit he was open to accusations of political posturing.

I'm sure he would rather not have touched this with Iain Gray's bargepole. I can't see how it's a vote winner as it was always likely to be derided by one or both sets of Old Firm supporters. Fans of other clubs seem so sickened by the whole rigmarole surrounding these games that nothing Salmond could do would be enough.

If that is his judgement then it might explain his inactivity up until now. I agree with the six points, even if I find them a bit blurry on actual details, but I fail to see why Salmond, his predecessors, the football authorities or the clubs themselves haven't taken these steps before now.

That seems to me a failure of leadership from a number of organisations.

A week on from the game we're still in a situation where the Old Firm is the subject of UK wide phone ins, providing a national stage for the unreconstructed fan to humiliate the game.

It would be nice if that didn't happen again. But that needs people to stand up and be counted over the long term and to look deeper into Scotland's problems.

I'll not hold my breath.

Monday, March 07, 2011

SPL Tonight: Dundee United v Aberdeen

The New Firm get the stage to themselves in one of the SPL's irregular bouts of Monday night action.

Dundee United launch into a run of home games lying in seventh but enjoying four games in hand on the two teams above them as they look to secure top six football.

Aberdeen's own chances of the top half look to be slim, the bad start endured under Mark McGhee leaving Craig Brown too much work to do.

The Dons steady improvement as Brown makes his presence felt can be seen in three straight clean sheets, even if two of them came in goalless draws.

United's season has been steadily inconsistent, a welcome win over Inverness coming after matches against Celtic, Hearts, St Johnstone and Hamilton brought only two points.

All of which might point to a draw. But there are draws and there are draws.

Hopefully tonight can be one of the better ones. After the maelstrom at Celtic Park on Wednesday and the turgid Rangers win at St Mirren yesterday we need something to enjoy.

Old Firm: Time To End The Madness

A relatively blog free weekend.

Everyone needs a break sometimes. And a week when the Old Firm, and by extension Scottish football, has been convulsed with a poisonous madness seems as good a time as any.

He said, he said, they said.

A never ending cycle of recrimination, scrambling for the moral highground, accusation and counter accusation.

Alex Salmond has summoned both clubs to Edinburgh for what you have to hope will be a constructive discussion rather than a predictable, publicity garnering dressing down.

Government and politicians getting involved in football is hardly ideal.

But neither is the abhorrent situation where the dangerously deluded can watch a football game and believe the only obvious reaction is to get drunk and beat their wife.

Or to send a hoax nail bomb to Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

That suggests something has to be done.

Something more than tit for tat, "we're better than you" gloating.

Something more than "it's the Old Firm, shit happens."

Shit might very well happen. But this is a supposedly modern country where there is a will, if not a consensus on method, to move football forward.

That's not going to happen when a lunatic fringe is revelling in the bileous atmosphere of recent days.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, Neil Lennon has done in his career is a reason for the death threats, the mail that has to be intercepted, the 24 hour guard on his house that we've seen reported this week.

That's seems to me a sickness that is leaving more and more people sickened.

And that's a tragedy for Neil Lennon and a darkness at the heart of the game.

Bridges need to be built, the lunatic fringe needs to be exposed, people need to be forced to realise that a local rivalry need not be riven with hatred.

Let's hope we can start that process this week.